For the last few years Alex Bartsch has been travelling around London searching for the locations of classic reggae album record covers that were made in the years 1967-87. Then positioning and holding the original album up at arms length he takes a photograph that captures the geography and context around each cover. Each image provides a fascinating insight into the history of reggae music in the English capital and the changing face of the city's landscape.
Alex is now starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to publish a book that collects some of these amazing images.
Check some of the photographs below and read a chat we had with Alex.
Noisey: Why the period 1967 - 1987?
Alex Bartsch: The Jackie Mittoo In London LP on Coxsone records from 1967 is the oldest record that I found that was photographed in London. It's also around the time Trojan records was founded. So it seems to be the right time to start this project. Aisha's High Priestess from 1987 is the last in the series. These 20 years seemed to be a good period to document.
How did you find the locations? Was there much info on liner notes?
It involved many hours, days, weeks, and months of detective work. Some of the locations are easy to spot, others were very difficult. Among the hardest were probably Sir Collins' Music Wheel Chapter 1, John Holt's 2000 Volts of Holt, Dandy's Your Musical Doctor, Moodie's Early Years, and Matumbi's Point of View.
I knew Syd Shelton took the photographs for Point of View. I heard he often used a bridge in East London as a shoot location. I had an idea of where these bridge arches might be. I went to see his Rock Against Racism exhibition in which he had contact sheets with various photos from that spot and by looking closely at the cobble stones on the floor I was able to determine for sure the exact location. Another example was 2000 Volts of Holt. I seemed it could have been any park or garden in London. John Holt and Tony Ashfield worked together and Lansdowne studios were used which are close to Holland Park and that's where I found the steps John Holt is sitting on.
The closest thing to clues I got from the records/liner notes was the address of the label/distributor. Turns out that back then they didn't seem to put as much effort into the cover photo shoot and I found some of the locations were photographed close by.
Has Google Maps made it easier to research and track locations?
Yes, I spent a lot of time on Google maps, roaming on street view. It helped a lot and saved me from physically scoping an area every time. Many covers are off grid though so I had to find other ways too.
Looking at the photographs and you realise how much UK heritage has been preserved. Did you find that many locations where development or locations destroyed?
Given how London changes so fast I thought there would be a lot of locations that wouldn't exist anymore or had changed too much, but I found most of the places hadn't changed much at all. There's the cover of Music House Vol.1 that was shot on Neasden Lane where Trojan/Music house were based and that area has completely changed. Another cover I couldn't find was Michael Prophet's LP on Greensleeves. In Hammersmith I found the locations of the photos at the back of the cover but could never find the wall he's leaning against on the front cover. I assume that wall doesn't exist anymore.
The images look very English. There is a greyness to them and there seems to be a lot of suits, coats, old buildings and bricks.
Yes! Greyness, bricks and warm coats are the primary things you can associate with the UK! There's definitely a look to London and doing this project, I could quite easily spot a cover that was shot in London.
There are a few that involve people leaning on cars. Was car ownership considered some form of status?
Yeah, there was a thing about leaning on cars but I never investigated that phenomenon. Maybe I should try and get to the bottom of it. I only know the story behind three of the cars featured in the covers and none of those belonged to the artists! It's funny, two of the fur coats used in the cover photos didn't belong to the artists either.
Was there any difficulty in taking photos of the albums at arms distance?
Yes, some were pretty difficult. There's a lot of things to think about like angle, distance from the subject, perspective, focal length, weather, time of day, and then there's lining it up at all edges of the cover. When the top right is perfect then the bottom corners might be off. It could take up to an hour to get it just right.There is a lot of leaning, scrawling and back bending sometimes.
Have you considered doing the same from other parts of the world or genres?
Yes this project has become a bit of an obsession and I have branched off into other genres and other countries. I have done a few hip-hop, afro and jazz record covers in London. When I go to France I stop off in Paris where I've done a few jazz, hip-hop and afro covers there too. I also did a few Cabo Verde records in Lisbon and one Ebo Taylor record in Ghana.
Obviously Jamaica is on the list of destinations to visit, as is New York. Let's see where the addiction takes me.
Pat Kelly, Pat Kelley Sings (Pama, 1969), rephotographed at the Albert Memorial, London SW7, 46 years later.
Lead image: Moodie, 'Early Years' (Moodie Music, 1974), rephotographed on Downhills Park Road, London N17, 41 years later.
Check out Alex's Kickstarterpage here.